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The appearance of The Sphinx I am indebted to Mark Samuels Lasner and Margaret Stetz, of the University of Delaware, for invaluable assistance with the Afterword, and to David Vander Meulen and Jerome McGann, of the University of Virginia, for invaluable assistance with bibliographical matters.

By the time Oscar Wilde’s poem The Sphinx appeared in June 1894, with decorations and illustrations by Charles Ricketts, Wilde had been working on the poemintermittently for at least eleven years. The timing was opportune, as was the choice of publishers (John Lane and Elkin Mathews in London, “at the Sign of theBodley Head,” and, simultaneously, Copeland and Day in Boston). The previous February, Mathews and Lane had issued the first English-language edition ofWilde’s play Salome , translated into English by Lord Alfred Douglas and “pictured” by Aubrey Beardsley (like The Sphinx , this book was simultaneously issued in Boston by Copeland and Day). And the first volume of the soon-to-be-notorious illustrated quarterly The Yellow Book had appeared in April, again published by Mathews and Lane in London and, one month later, by Copeland and Day in Boston. The EnglishDecadence was at its height, fanned into flames by Wilde’s own English publishers from their bookshop in London’s Vigo Street (“The Bodley Head,” namedfor its street sign displaying the head of the Renaissance scholar-diplomat Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library). And thanks to the offices ofCopeland and Day, those flames were beginning to reach the United States (see Kraus; and Weir, 50-74) where, as other works published in the Literature ByDesign Series show, their effects on American writers and artists would be considerable. Only an Act of Parliament would “meet the case,” the Westminster Gazette had declared of the first volume of The Yellow Book , the previous April, “to make this kind of thing illegal” (quoted in Mix, 88). Although the succès de scandale of such works as Salome , The Yellow Book and The Sphinx would eventually lead to a permanent breakdown of thepartnership between the conservative Mathews and the more adventurous Lane, in the summer of 1894 Mathews and Lane were bringing to a fever pitch certainmovements in the literary and textual arts that were to have long-standing effects on the course of literature and design in the English-speaking world.Not for nothing did the poet and critic W. E. Henley comment, upon reviewing The Sphinx in the Pall Mall Gazette in July 1894, that it was “about as fin de siècle a business as you ever saw” (Henley, 168).

Exact dates for when Wilde began composing The Sphinx and when he completed it to his satisfaction are hard to determine precisely (see “Origins of The Sphinx below). But there is little doubt that The Sphinx occupied a large portion of Wilde’s life and, along with his Poems and “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.,” it was at the forefront of Wilde’s mind when late in 1891 he decided to transfer hispublishing arrangements to Mathews and Lane. As Wilde would have been acutely aware, the Bodley Head was rapidly developing “a reputation for breaking withconventions—not only literary conventions, but social and moral ones” (Stetz, 72). Before Wilde joined their list, Mathews and Lane had already published, orwere on the point of publishing, important work by the young poets of the Rhymers’ Club and by older poets such as Philip Bourke Marston and Lord DeTabley, noted for their affinities with the Pre-Raphaelite Movement. Just as important, they published emerging women writers such Katherine Bradley andEdith Cooper (who wrote jointly and published under the pseudonym “Michael Field”), and Dollie Radford. Over the coming months, that list would besupplemented by such important fin de siècle writers as Arthur Symons, John Gray, John Davidson, “George Egerton” (Mary Chavelita Dunne) and John Addington Symonds, among others. A“Vigo Street School” (Nelson, The Early Nineties , 300) was coming into existence, and the Bodley Head was rapidly becoming a home to writers and book artists of what is now termed theDecadent Movement. Five of Wilde’s works (but not “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.”) were to be published by the firm over the ensuing years before Wilde’simprisonment in 1895. Only four of Wilde’s books appeared with both Mathews’s and Lane’s names on the title page. Though Wildehad arranged with Mathews and Lane for the publication of A Woman of No Importance in 1893, the acrimonious split between the two publishers in the summer of 1894 threw Wilde’s publishingarrangements into disarray, and the book eventually appeared in October 1894 under Lane’s name alone. A Woman of No Importance was not merely the last of Wilde’s books to be published “at the sign of the Bodley Head,” but also the last to be published before hisimprisonment and bankruptcy, with the exception of the privately printed selection Oscariana (London: Arthur Humphreys, 1895). For the acrimonious split between Mathews and Lane, seeNelson, The Early Nineties , 266-79. For Wilde’s preferred publication arrangements following the split, see Complete Letters , 604-613 passim.

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Source:  OpenStax, The sphinx. OpenStax CNX. Apr 11, 2010 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11196/1.2
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